Kessel rewarded for explosive start

Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs battles for position with Alex Tanguay of the Calgary Flames...

Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs battles for position with Alex Tanguay of the Calgary Flames in the second period of action at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto October 15th, 2011. (DAVE ABEL/QMI Agency)

DAVE HILSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:32 PM ET

Play hard at both ends of the ice and good things happen. They’ve been happening to Phil Kessel, anyway.

On Monday, Kessel was rewarded for his explosive start to the season by being named the NHL’s first star of the week for the week ending Oct. 16.

Kessel racked up five goals and three assists in the Maple Leafs’ first three games, all wins. His five goals and eight points are tied for the league lead, as is his impressive plus-seven rating.

Kessel recorded his first hat trick as a Leaf in a 6-5 win over Ottawa on Oct. 8, then added two more goals against Calgary on Saturday.

“Statistically it’s pretty clear in the way he’s played. There are some great performances obviously throughout the league, but Phil’s done it in every game, so I think it’s deserved,” coach Ron Wilson said of the honour.

Wilson said Kessel’s improved defensive play was noticeable over the last several months of the 2010-11 campaign.

“It probably came out of the constant discussions that if you’re not scoring, what can you do to help the team?,” Wilson said after the Leafs' morning skate on Monday. “He wants to participate a little bit on the PK (penalty kill), as an example, and I’ve told him ‘I not going to put you out on the PK unless you’ve got a 200-foot game going.’ It’s not going to be the cart before the horse. The horse has gotta be first, and that would be getting the game done defensively, five on five, and then we’ll think about the PK.”

In the past, Kessel, who is quite a streaky player when it comes to scoring goals, was criticized for not doing much when he wasn’t putting the puck in the net, and Wilson credits his new-found interest in contributing defensively to “maturity.”

“Without my linemates, it wouldn’t be possible,” Kessel said of being honoured by the league. “They’re getting me the puck in good areas and right now we’re clicking.”

Whether Kessel and the Leafs can match last season’s start by improving to 4-0 when they face the Colorado Avalanche tonight at the Air Canada Centre remains to be seen. While they’re not exactly your dad’s Avalanche, with forwards Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg long gone, Colorado has won four in a row on the road after dropping their first game of the season at home to Detroit, and will be the Leafs’ toughest test so far in this early season.

The Leafs will go with the same lineup again tonight, with James Reimer facing former Toronto starter J-S Giguere in net. It’s the only time the two teams will meet this year.


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